As NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman considers submissions on criminalising coercive control, the Sentinel’s editor-at-large Gary Nunn examines the debate – and posits that we owe it to women to outlaw such behaviour.
“Your dad’s been killed and your mum’s being talked off a cliff top.”
These were the chilling words David Challen, 33, heard one awful morning after his mum, Sally, killed his dad with a hammer. It took hours to dissuade her from jumping.
At her 2011 trial in the UK, Sally Challen was convicted of murder, painted as a vengeful, manipulative wife.
But David knew there was far more to the story than this: a story of psychological abuse inflicted upon his mum by his dad. A frustration was that he lacked the vocabulary to describe it.
“It sounded so tit-bitty,” David told me. “Each incident by itself didn’t sound enough.”
The two words that changed everything
It was a concise, two-word phrase that changed the course of British legal history and Sally’s fate: coercive control. England and Wales in 2015 became the world’s first nations to make it an offence – punishable by up to five years in jail.
In a landmark case, it helped Sally walk free last year. The Crown accepted her plea of the lesser charge of manslaughter on the basis of diminished responsibility.
Now, NSW has the opportunity to criminalise coercive control, as an inquiry has just completed taking submissions for Attorney General Mark Speakman to consider. Under the proposed NSW legislation, perpetrators face ten years imprisonment.
NSW has a chance to lead Australia by being the first mainland state to outlaw the dangerous pattern of behaviour that characterises abusive relationships.
It’s an opportunity it should not squander. Victims are crying out for it. Major voices in the domestic violence sector are calling for it. And, for women like Sally Challen, it has given a voice to articulate the intimate terrorism they endured – and a new chance of a truly free life.
The son who campaigned to free his mum
I met David Challen in London in 2019. For someone who came very close to losing both his parents on the same day – and in the most unthinkably traumatic circumstances – David Challen, 32, was remarkably composed.
His coffee cup clinked calmly onto a saucer as he spoke with a polite eloquence.
It was the composure of someone who hadn’t allowed himself to fall apart outside of closed doors, so others around him can lean on his strength.
Today, he has become one of the UK’s leading male voices speaking out on male violence against women, in all its forms – and promoting a broader understanding of domestic violence, outside an exclusive focus on the physical.
Decoding jargon through storytelling
In Australia, outside the specialist family violence sector, there’s limited understanding of what coercive control is and how best to respond to it. It’s seen as jargon.
This was the case in the UK, until David Challen put into plain English the ways in which his dad abused his mum since she was 15: philandering, brothel visiting, lying, gaslighting, isolating her, controlling her, encouraging complete dependence, humiliating, demeaning, fat-shaming and bullying her until she finally broke.
Coercive control can also include surveillance, intimidation, degradation and financial abuse.
David knew that if his mum’s murder sentence was to be downgraded to manslaughter, he’d need to share these painful and intimate details of his parents’ marriage. And he did. Again and again. With that same composure and in that same plain English.
“If I’d have heard that term sooner, I’d have marched my father down to the station, I swear to God,” David told me, his composure faltering for the first time.
An opportunity for our state to lead
Now, NSW has a chance to ensure no woman is controlled, isolated and coerced to the extent Sally was. Because it absolutely happens here. A review of NSW domestic violence-related homicides found that in 99 per cent of cases, the relationship included coercive controlling behaviours towards the victim.
Coercive control is a crucial predictor of severe and fatal violence. Outlawing it could prevent dangerous situations turning deadly. For example, in the horrific murder of Hannah Clarke and her three children by her estranged husband. Coercive control had characterised their relationship – but no law existed to deter this behaviour.
Survivors urge change
Victim-survivors are desperate for this new law. Women’s Safety NSW asked its 100 victim survivor advocates if they supported criminalising this. 97 per cent were strongly in favour.
Many domestic violence sector professionals are saying it’s the missing jigsaw piece in a flawed but essential criminal justice system.
“This’ll turbo-charge cultural change,” Hayley Foster, CEO of Women’s Safety NSW told the Sentinel. “It’ll act as a deterrent for damaging controlling behaviours even if there are initially few prosecutions. And it’ll be empowering and healing for women. Once they have the language for what they’ve experienced, they feel less judged, less alone and more encouraged to seek support.”
Just having the conversation in the media changes things; women now message David Challen and his mum saying they’ve left their relationship because her story made them recognise it as abusive.
Splits in the DV sector
There’s a diversity of views in the domestic violence sector.
In The Conversation, a small group of well-respected advocates and criminologists urged caution, arguing Australia isn’t ready to criminalise coercive control until a “thorough consultation and rigorous evidence base for change” is set up to avoid unintended consequences.
That is, however, exactly what the NSW Attorney General’s inquiry is doing with its extensive consultation. I spoke to his office, who told me he’d liaised with sector professionals in the UK – including Scotland, seen as the gold standard for protecting women and children from coercive control.
In response, a larger group of domestic violence experts wrote in The Guardian that these critics were “nihilistic about the ability of the justice system to protect women”.
“Creating a coercive control offence would be a complex though potentially very worthwhile reform that could help prevent deaths,” Attorney General Mark Speakman told the Sentinel. “However, any legislative reform must be approached with great caution. Thorough research and consultation is crucial.”
He added that a new offence may also not be the best, or only, way to improve our response to non-physical forms of domestic abuse.
Critics pointed to Tasmania, which has criminalised some coercive controlling behaviours, but where use of the offences has been limited.
Legislative and cultural change
But that only underscores the need for NSW to do this well: draft it with a forensic eye for detail based on this comprehensive consultation. Couple the new law with a broad community education and training piece: from schools to police, so it’s understood in the simplest and starkest of terms.
The biggest message is for boys: if you try to control your future partners in this way, you could go to jail for ten years.
As Illawarra-based psychiatrist Karen Williams told The Drum: “Young women need to recognise early that it isn’t sweet or protective or romantic to have a man want to keep them all to themselves, not sweet to tell her not to work, and be dependent on him.”
That’s a powerful message in primary prevention of domestic violence to tell our girls at an early age.
By drafting this law well, and rolling it out right, NSW has the chance to save lives, change patriarchal power dynamics in relationships and empower women to resist dangerously controlling behaviour.
We owe it to women like Hannah Clarke and Sally Challen and their children.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, phone 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.
Gary Nunn was an inaugral fellow of the Walkleys Our Watch Journalist Fellowship, aimed at improving media coverage of violence against women. He is the Sentinel’s editor-at-large. Twitter: @garynunn1.